Optina Hermitage

The Optina Hermitage of the Presentation of the Virgin lies approximately two miles from the town of Kozelsk in Kaluga Region. Although the cloister stands on the bank of the River Zhizdra, surrounded by the Optina Forest, there is, in fact, nothing eremitic about this spot. The word “hermitage” is used simply to convey a sense of monastic solitude and comfort.

According to one popular legend, the hermitage is named after a robber called Opta, who repented of his sins and founded a monastery, which he entered under the name of Macarius. In some sources prior to the nineteenth century, the cloister is indeed called the “Optina St Macarius Hermitage.”

Another version suggests that the name dates back to the days when the hermitage was inhabited by both monks and nuns, who “lived together” (optom in Russian). In the late seventeenth century, the cloister synodic lists both male and female names. This theory also explains the name of the Bolkhov Optina Monastery of the Trinity, where monks and nuns also lived together at one time.

The constant devastation suffered by the Optina Hermitage over the years means that there are no surviving documents from the early period of its history. The cloister was probably founded in the fifteenth century or possibly even earlier. Archimandrite Leonid (Kavelin) uses a number of arguments to support this dating. The long history of Kozelsk, which is first mentioned in the chronicles in 1146, would suggest the need for a nearby monastery. Most of the neighbouring cloisters were established in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while the hermitage must have been founded before the sixteenth century, when the communal living of monks and nuns was officially prohibited.

By the late sixteenth century, there is clear evidence of the existence of the Optina Hermitage. The Kozelsk cadastres for the period from 1629 to 1631 state that, on the death of Tsar Feodor I in 1598, the monastery was awarded, in his memory, a mill and a homestead on the River Drugusna near Kozelsk.

In the 1610s, during the Time of Troubles, both the Optina Hermitage and the town of Kozelsk were destroyed. But the cloister was quickly restored. The Kozelsk cadastres from 1629 to 1631 mention the “pilgrimage of the sovereign, tsar and grand prince, Michael Romanov of All Russia, to the Optina St Macarius Hermitage.”

By this time, the monastery boasted a wooden Church of the Presentation of the Virgin and six cells. The fraternity was headed by a black priest called Theodoret. Construction of a stone Church of the Presentation with a side-chapel of St Paphnutius of Borovsk began in 1689.

Judging by the surviving endowments book, dating from the 1670s, the Optina Hermitage had many important sponsors during this period. The monastery received donations from the regent Sophia, Ivan V, his wife Praskovia Saltykova, Peter I and such members of the court as Andrei Shepelev and Ivan Zhelyabuzhsky.

Construction of the Church of the Presentation dragged on into the early eighteenth century. In 1717, Father Superior Leonid requested fresh endowments, as the roof had “rotted away.”

The eighteenth century was a time of decline and impoverishment in the history of the Optina Hermitage. In 1724, the monastery was closed down and signed over to the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Belyov. The monks moved to the new cloister, taking with them all the church books, icons, ornaments and even the wooden buildings and stockade. The remaining stone church became a local parish church.

Two years later, however, the Optina Hermitage was reopened. Between 1750 and 1771, a new Cathedral of the Presentation was constructed and decorated. Built on the site of the old church, it is the earliest monastery structure still surviving today. The cathedral was designed in the Neoclassical style and had two side-chapels dedicated to St Paphnutius of Borovsk and St Theodore Stratelates.

In the nineteenth century, the Cathedral of the Presentation was expanded with the addition of two new side-chapels – St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker in the south and St Paphnutius of Borovsk in the north (moved from the church refectory). In 1769, the recently built wooden belltower was supplemented by a small stone one.

By this time, the Optina Hermitage was an insignificant and sparsely populated cloister. In 1764, during the secularisation of the Russian monasteries, it was classified as supernumerary and not worthy of receiving crown support. The hermitage did not even have the minimum number of seven monks required by the law; by that time, only a couple of old men lived there.

The rebirth of the Optina Hermitage began in the late eighteenth century, when it caught the attention of Metropolitan Platon (Levshin) of Moscow and Kaluga. Platon believed that the geographical location and local conditions made it the ideal place for the founding of a strict cenobitic hermitage. He invited Father Superior Abraham of the Pesnosha Monastery of St Nicholas to take up the post of abbot from 1796 to 1817.

Under Father Superior Abraham, the number of monks at the Optina Hermitage rapidly grew (some came from the Pesnosha Monastery of St Nicholas). The buildings were repaired and new construction work commenced. All this laid the foundations for the future flourishing of the cloister.

Following the opening of a separate Kaluga diocese in 1799, the Optina Hermitage began to gradually stand out among the other monasteries. When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, the cloister’s churches were open from dawn until late at night, full of people praying for victory. There was a danger that the Grande Armée might reach Kozelsk, so Father Superior Abraham ordered the church ornaments, sacristy and library to be packed away in chests and hidden in the nearby forest, where the fraternity also planned to take refuge in the event of the enemy appearing.

In 1821, the Skete of St John the Baptist was founded under the auspices of the Optina Hermitage. Although it stood in the forest, it was only four hundred yards from the monastery stockade. Shortly afterwards, the hermitage adopted an austere cenobitic typikon, based on the rules of the Konevets Monastery of the Nativity, recently distributed by the Holy Synod as a model.

At the monastery, church services were held every day. In the skete, they were only held on Saturdays and Sundays; on all other days, the monks read the prayers of the liturgy in their cells. While the monastery was known for its large fraternity and openly welcomed pilgrims, the skete preferred seclusion. It was closed to visitors five days a week and women were not allowed to enter at all.

The monks of the Optina Hermitage and the Skete of St John the Baptist did not often come into contact with one another. The members of the skete only visited the monastery on important feast days. Two separate worlds quickly developed in the minds of the inhabitants of both cloisters. A transfer from the skete to the monastery was regarded by the “sketians” as a form of exile. They declared that they would only move back to the monastery when their dead corpses were returned. Conflicts sometimes broke out between the two communities. Although the skete lay in direct proximity to the Optina Hermitage, it was not so much a branch of the monastery as its spiritual heart.

In 1825, an hieromonk called Moses (Putilov) was appointed abbot of the Optina Hermitage, ushering in a new golden age in the life of the monastery. During this period, the cloister became renowned as a centre of Russian staretsdom. In 1829, the hieroschemamonk Leo (Nagolkin) settled at the skete, beginning the long tradition of Optina staretsdom.

Staretsdom became the spiritual pin of monastic life at the Optina Hermitage. The friars sought out elders, sharing their thoughts and receiving spiritual guidance. A special practice at the monastery ensured the continuity of this tradition. After the death of an elder, the senior fraternity elected his successor, who had often already been carefully prepared for this role by his predecessor.

Staretsdom assumed a unique form at the Optina Hermitage. The elders provided guidance not just to a small number of disciples, but to the entire fraternity. They also received “outsiders,” including monks and nuns from other cloisters and even laymen, with whom they happily corresponded. Their visitors came from all different classes and included members of the imperial family (Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna), church leaders (Metropolitan Joannicius, Bishop Nikon, Metropolitan Macarius), scholars, philosophers, writers and poets (Nikolai Gogol, Ivan and Pyotr Kireyevsky, Konstantin and Ivan Aksakov, Stepan Shevyrov, Mikhail Maximovich, Alexander Muravyov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Konstantin Leontiev, Vladimir Solovyov, Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Nilus, Yevgeny Poselyanin and Sergei Durylin).

Some monks regarded this orientation on the outside world as a dangerous break with traditional staretsdom. From the very outset, the Optina elders encountered a lack of trust and hostility in certain quarters, including inside the monastery. But this did little to diminish their popularity or the demand for their teachings.

Another important figure in the history of the Optina Hermitage was the schema-archimandrite Isaac (Antimonov), who served as abbot from 1862 to 1894. He introduced the rudiments of collective leadership into the running of the monastery. The abbot was assisted by a monastic council or assembly, formed from members of the senior fraternity.

Many monks of the Optina Hermitage went on to occupy important posts in other cloisters. Some of them even became father superiors themselves. The lists of abbots in the monasteries of the Kaluga diocese reflect the tradition of appointing former Optina monks at the heads of these cloisters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many enjoyed illustrious careers in the Russian Orthodox Church, reaching the highest ranks – Bishop Ignatius (Bryanchaninov), Archbishop Juvenalius (Polovtsev), Metropolitan Tryphon (Turkestanov) and Bishop Micah (Alexeyev).

The size of the fraternity continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. There were forty-six monks in 1825, seventy in 1850, two hundred and eleven in 1875, two hundred and sixty-three in 1900 and three hundred and fifty-five in 1915.

The monastery also grew considerably richer over this period, deriving a steady flow of income from several sources. The Optina Hermitage received a small handout from the crown, first established by Tsar Paul I in 1797 for all non-state monasteries (this practice was discontinued in 1868). Money also came in from such activities as catching fish. The cloister’s landholdings grew thanks to new acquisitions and donations between the 1850s and the 1880s. The forests, hayfields and orchards were then rented out, earning more money. The largest source of income was private alms and endowments, which increased as the monastery grew in fame.

The Optina Hermitage was the centre of a wide array of economic activities. Between the 1850s and 1870s, the monks opened a sawmill, a joinery and brick, tile, limestone and candle factories. The cloister also engaged in bookbinding, cooperage, tailoring and smithing. Plumbing was installed and libraries and a bookstore were opened. Stables and a farmyard developed outside the stockade.

The hermitage was much involved in charity work. A school, a home for invalids, an orphanage and an almshouse were opened in the cloister at the turn of the century. Dozens of injured soldiers were treated in the monastery hospital during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). In the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and the First World War (1914–17), the Optina Hermitage sent money to the front and financed a special hospital for wounded soldiers. Many novices and rassophores were called up into the Russian army. At least 105 took part in the First World War, including hieromonks, who served as military priests.

The modern architectural ensemble of the Optina Hermitage mainly arose in the nineteenth century. Between 1802 and 1805, a four-tiered stone belltower was built in the Neoclassical style. The cubic foundation of the first tier with gates evolved into the cylindrical form of the upper tiers, ending in an attic with a clockface and a high steeple. The belltower was approximately sixty metres in height, making this vertical object the definitive element in the Optina ensemble.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan was designed in the Empire style. Built between 1805 and 1811, this basilica was crowned by a small cupola without a lantern dome-drum. There were two side-chapels. To this day, the Kazan Cathedral is the most capacious church at the hermitage.

The hospital Church of Our Lady of Vladimir was built at the same time as the Kazan Cathedral. The semicircular ends of this cruciform church contained six cells for the hospital staff.

Between 1832 and 1839, a stone wall was built around the hermitage. The wall was square in shape, with seven towers and two entrance gates. The holy gates were located beneath the western tower, which had a tented roof and was crowned with the figure of a trumpeting angel. The gates faced the River Zhizdra, where the monastery steamer was moored.

The western tower lay on the same axis as the belltower and the Cathedral of the Presentation. In this way, anyone entering the monastery passed through two sets of gates – the holy gates under the tower and the gates beneath the belltower (reached via a multi-span staircase) – emerging at the parvis of the catholicon.

The Church of St Mary of Egypt and St Anne the Righteous was consecrated in 1858. Designed in the Neoclassical style and crowned with one cupola, this building appeared as a result of the reconstruction of the old refectory. The side-chapel of St Ambrose of Milan and St Alexander Nevsky was added in 1885. Following the construction of this new place of worship, the monastery churches and the belltower formed a cross, with the Cathedral of the Presentation at the centre.

A separate architectural ensemble arose at the Skete of St John the Baptist. This group of buildings was distinguished for its simplicity and modesty. Most of the structures were made of wood.

The most important building in the skete was the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. Built between 1821 and 1822, it stood in the centre of the large rectangular plot of land, surrounded by a stockade with turrets in the corners. The church is a rare example of wooden architecture in the Empire style.

The Cathedral of St John the Baptist consists of a narthex, a refectory and a cubic church crowned by a small cupola. One of the inside walls is decorated with a slightly altered copy of Alexander Ivanov’s famous painting Christ Appearing to the People (in the interests of modesty, the figures of the nude bathers have been clothed in garments). In 1865, the side-chapel of St Macarius of Egypt was added in memory of the elder of the same name.

In 1857, new holy gates with a belltower were built from stone. This was a two-tiered construction with small gates and side lodges at the bottom, followed by a belfry decorated with corbel arches and crowned with a cupola. Inside the gates, the side walls were painted with full-length images of Orthodox anchorites. The heads of the skete lived in the small house to the left of the holy gates, while the elders and confessors resided in the hut on the right.

Between 1901 and 1902, the Church of St Leo of Catania and St John of Rila was built from stone. Designed in the Neo-Russian style, it differed greatly from all previous places of worship at the Optina Hermitage. The cellar contained a side-chapel dedicated to the Congregation of St Michael the Archangel, while a belfry stood above the entrance. A two-storey block of cells was built next to the church. The upper floor became the new home of the skete sacristy and library.

A number of buildings were constructed outside the stockade, to the south of the monastery. In 1864, a small single-cupola cubic Church of All Saints was erected in the new cemetery. In memory of the elder Hilarion, a two-storey hospital block with a single-cupola Chapel of St Hilarion the Great was built at the southern gates in 1874. Finally, a chapel and a bathing hut were constructed on the River Zhizdra, where the source of St Paphnutius of Borovsk always attracted crowds of people.

Throughout the nineteenth century, a whole host of residential constructions were built in the monastery and skete, including blocks for monks and guest rooms for pilgrims. The dominant colour in the monastery ensemble was white. The new buildings of the Optina Hermitage combined features of provincial church architecture with memories of the grand styles of the past.

One of the most famous artists at the Optina Hermitage was a hieroschemamonk called Gabriel (Spassky). Besides icons, he also painted a series of portraits of the monks from life in the 1850s. Another leading painter was the hieromonk Daniel (Bolotov), who lived at the monastery from 1886 to 1907. As a layman, he had graduated from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Daniel founded icon-painting studios at the hermitage with a teaching programme based on modern art schools. He painted a series of highly professional portraits of the Optina elders, helped to decorate the churches and also introduced the art of photography to the monastery.

Many Optina monks engaged in educational work at the hermitage. These activities were launched in the 1840s, at the initiative of the elder Macarius. Such work provided an outlet for the talents of the better educated members of the fraternity (during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, fourteen percent of the community consisted of former members of the nobility).

The monks transcribed, translated and published religious literature, including the works of St Barsanuphius the Great, St John the Prophet, Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, Abba Marcus Eremita, St John Climacus, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Theodore the Stoudite, St Maximus the Confessor, St Isaac of Nineveh, St John of Damascus and St Nilus of Sora. Thanks to the patronage of a number of important church officials, particularly Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, the Optina Hermitage was allowed to engage in independent publishing activities, bringing out new books almost every year.

The chronicles kept at the Skete of St John the Baptist provide important information on the history of the Optina Hermitage. They cover the entire period from 1820 to 1918, with the exception of the years from 1861 to 1864 and 1883 to 1899. The chronicles record the composition of the brotherhood, the ordaining and deaths of monks, construction work at the skete and hermitage, notable church services and “particularly important and outstanding events in the church and political life of Russia.”

This information suggests that the Optina Hermitage was open to the world and very much aware of what was going on in the country – not just in the church, but also in the political life of the nation. The majority of monks were patriotic monarchists, who regarded Russia as a Christian state led by an infallible monarch crowned by the will of God. Regarding this divine right as a guarantee of the well-being of the nation, they did not recognise any other form of government. The wars and revolutions at the start of the twentieth century filled the monks with a sense of dread and foreboding, inspiring thoughts of the dawning of an apocalyptic age and new trials designed to test their faith.

Such trials began immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. Following the Communist decree on the separation of the church from the state on 23 January 1918, the monastery was closed down. Later that year, all its property was confiscated. The fraternity was only allowed to stay together in the form of an agricultural artel, which was presented with meadows, vegetable patches and cattle. Religious services continued to be held in the Kazan Cathedral. In 1923, the artel was liquidated and the remaining monks were evicted. The last liturgy was held in the cathedral on 19 August 1923.

The subsequent history of the Optina Hermitage was typical of the twentieth century. The monks moved to Kozelsk, where they were based around the Church of St George, or into the neighbouring villages. Many of them were exiled or shot in 1937 and 1938.

The churches and other buildings of the Optina Hermitage were put to new uses. In 1931, the monastery was turned into the Maxim Gorky Rest Home (the writer was allegedly touched by the dedication). Between 1939 and 1941, it was an NKVD concentration camp, where Polish officers were imprisoned after the start of the Second World War. In autumn 1941, Kozelsk and the Optina Hermitage were briefly captured by the Germans.

After Soviet forces retook the Optina Hermitage in 1941, a medical evacuation hospital was opened on its territory. In 1943, a tank battalion and an infantry regiment were stationed there. After the war, a children’s home was opened in the former monastery in 1949. Ten years later, this was replaced by a technical college for the training of rural machine operators (the Kazan Cathedral was used as a tractor park into the 1980s). The cells were turned into housing.

Over these years of neglect, the architectural ensemble of the Optina Hermitage suffered immense losses. In 1928, the government requisitioned all “scrap metal” and the bells were removed from the belltower. One bell proved to be too large for the hole in the belltower and was simply thrown to the ground. During the war, part of the upper tier of the belltower collapsed, so it was pulled down, leaving only the lower tier. The Church of All Saints in the cemetery and the hospital Church of Our Lady of Vladimir were completely destroyed, right down to their foundations.

The cupolas were removed from all the surviving churches. Bare walls were all that remained of the Kazan Cathedral and the Church of St Mary of Egypt. The stockade was partially destroyed. Restoration work only began in 1974, when the monastery territory was taken under government protection, although even then the ensemble still remained in a precarious state.

On 17 November 1987, the Optina Hermitage was one of the first cloisters to be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The monastery reopened, signalling the start of another rebirth in its long history.

For the first time ever, the Optina Hermitage was awarded the status of a stauropegic monastery. Officially, the post of honorary abbot is occupied by the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. In the modern period of its history, the fraternity has been headed by archimandrites Eulogius (Smirnov) and Benedict (Penkov).

The first divine services were held in the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir, which was opened in the western tower over the gates. The first liturgy was celebrated there on 3 June 1988. The Cathedral of the Presentation was consecrated at the same time, accompanied by the addition of new side-chapels.

One of the main aims of the revived monastery has been the restoration of the old architectural ensemble. In 1987, this process began under the guidance of experts from the St Daniel Monastery in Moscow, headed by hieromonk Joseph (Bratischev). Just like a century ago, the Optina Hermitage began to attract pilgrims and philanthropists, who have helped many of the buildings to rise again from the ruins.

The ceilings and cupolas of the surviving churches have been rebuilt. Between 1996 and 1998, the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir was reconstructed where it had previously stood. By 1999, the belltower was restored, albeit with some deviations from the original forms. The largest bell was cast at the Donetsk Metallurgical Works and weighs 6.7 tons.

By 2009, the Church of All Saints had been rebuilt on its previous site outside the walls. The frescoes in the Kazan Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady of Vladimir were painted by the monks, with help from the teachers and students of the icon-painting schools at the Vasily Surikov Institute of Art and the St Tikhon Orthodox University in Moscow. As no exact information on the pre-revolutionary paintwork has survived, it was decided to paint the frescoes in an Old Russian spirit, rather than in the realistic traditions of church painting in the nineteenth century.

The monks even found time to construct completely new buildings at the Optina Hermitage. In 2000, the Church of the Virgin Provider of the Bread of Life was built not far from the northern gates, on a subsidiary plot of land. In 2005, Patriarch Alexius II laid the foundations for the Church of the Transfiguration near the holy gates. The church was named in memory of the last divine service performed after the closure of the Optina Hermitage on 19 August 1923 – the feast day of the Transfiguration of the Lord – and was completed in 2007.

Many of the old burial sites have been established from descriptions of the Optina necropolis. Original or new tombstones have now been erected over the graves.

In 1991, the Optina Hermitage was awarded a town church in St Petersburg. This was the Church of the Dormition, built in the Neo-Russian style between 1895 and 1897. In 1997, the monastery was also awarded a town church in Moscow. This was the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Yasenevo, designed in the Elizabethan Baroque style of the mid-eighteenth century.

The recent canonisation of a number of monks pays tribute to the spiritual role of the Optina Hermitage in the life of the nation. In 1988, the elder Ambrose was canonised by the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. On 26 July 1996, Patriarch Alexius II visited the monastery and glorified a number of elders as locally revered saints – Leo, Macarius, Hilarion, Anatolius (Zertsalov), Joseph, Barsanuphius, Anatolius (Potapov), Nectarius and Nikon. Brothers Moses (Putilov), Anthony (Putilov), Isaac (Antimonov) and Isaac (Bobrakov) were also recognised. In 2000, the Council of Bishops declared them all worthy of universal sainthood. Many of the monks killed by the Communists were also canonised.

The ranks of holy martyrs from the Optina Hermitage have grown in the post-Soviet period. On Easter night in 1993, the hieromonk Basil (Roslyakov) and monks Trofim (Tatarnikov) and Therapontus (Pushkarev) were brutally murdered by a devil-worshipper. In 2008, a chapel was built above their graves inside the monastery.

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